It’s getting dark out when we arrive at the flat. We can see a bright light through the blinds in the window. Behind it is a young man wearing pink eye shadow, who is just touching up his mascara. In a minute, he’ll don a purple wig and transform into a she: Dolly Wood, the hostess of Dolly’s Dazzling Karaoke, a drag queen event in De Lola, behind the Vismarkt in Groningen. We go up the stairs and ring the bell.
Make-up makes the man
‘Hi there, come on in’, a friendly-sounding voice tells us. We follow Tom into the living room, where Steve Miller is softly playing in the background. ‘… I’m a lover, and I’m a sinner, I play my music in the sun…’
Not much flamboyance, so far. He sits down again and uses a Pritt glue stick to touch up his eyebrows.
‘Wait, you can do that?’ I ask anxiously.
You never hear anyone say, ‘Wow, well done, faggot!’
‘Yes’, Tom answers dryly. ‘I mean, it’s for children, so theoretically you can even eat it.’
My photographer smiles. I’ve seen drag queens plenty of times, but I’ve never witnessed a transformation in person. With every new layer of make-up, I become more acutely aware of my inclination to use ‘she’ in my notes. He applies foundation… He grabs an eyeliner… She applies blusher on top of the foundation… She draws on her eyebrows using a pencil…
Well done, faggot!
I ask whether being a drag queen is still ‘controversial’ in the year 2019. By now, Tom has eight years’ worth of experience doing it, and for him it’s mostly a fun act. A show. What bothers him more is the fact that he and his boyfriend still get jeered at when they hold hands in public. He is still subjected to being called ‘queer’ and ‘faggot’ at work, too. He seems to be used to it, and shrugs as he talks about it.
‘It’s never positive, though. You never hear anyone say, “Wow, well done, faggot!”‘
It’s not that I’m becoming someone different; instead, it’s easier for me to allow a certain aspect of my personality to come out
My photographer and I burst out laughing, because indeed, it does sound rather unheard of. Tom doesn’t hide his sexuality from anyone, but he isn’t shouting it from the rooftops, either. It continues to be something that deviates from ‘the norm.’ She starts putting on lipstick. And yes, it’s just as confusing to me as it is to you, reader dearest.
It’s not entirely coincidental that I think about the film Joker, in which we see how Arthur Fleck gradually slips further and further away and becomes Batman’s arch enemy. Tom (or Dolly?) explains how it becomes easier to let yourself go when you’re wearing a mask.
‘It’s not that I’m becoming someone different; instead, it’s easier for me to allow a certain aspect of my personality to come out. I’m like an onion, only the other way around’, he jokes.
Or as Oscar Wilde said: ‘Give a man a mask and he will tell you the truth.’
In Joker, the make-up is also a mask. It allows the main character to accept the part of himself that is not accepted by society.
You can get away with anything; I make jokes about gays, transgenders, as well as very xenophobic or racist jokes
Dolly is that kind of character; the more make-up I put on, the sharper she becomes. She explains with an ironic chuckle that she discovered drag through her extremely religious host family in the US. First her love of singing in church, and later of dressing up thanks to a Broadway musical in New York. She does enjoy the shock value of it.
‘You can get away with anything; I make jokes about gays, transgenders, as well as very xenophobic or racist jokes. Totally politically incorrect, but people think it’s hilarious. I make a complete fool of myself, too, so my message really boils down to: don’t take yourself so seriously.’
‘In a way, you’re actually the court jester, mocking the establishment’, I say. Dolly smiles knowingly and nods in agreement. It’s time for us to grab some dinner. We agree to meet at De Lola at 20:30.
Dolly’s Dazzling Karaoke
We’re early, and it’s still quiet in De Lola. Dolly is smoking a cigarette. She’s wearing heels and a pink dress with black embroidery.
‘You look beautiful, darling’, I say.
It is a strange combination of elegant and tacky.
‘Yes, it costs a lot of money to look this cheap.’
We burst into laughter. She’s not sure yet whether it will be a busy night. It varies. She gives the impression of a 16-year-old girl at her birthday party: slightly insecure, slightly anxious, but ready for action.
But what kind of, um, people…are you attracted to? To whom, or…what?
Inside at the bar, we chat with Lisa, a transgender woman. At first glance, I get the impression that he — she — is a man with long hair. But the confusion is mainly created by her somewhat deep voice. She likes Led Zeppelin, just like us. The way she flirts with us a little is entirely feminine. I feel confused.
‘But what kind of, um, people…are you attracted to? ‘To whom, or…what?’ I ask, uncertain and awkwardly. ‘Men or women?’
‘You’re thinking in binary terms’, says Lisa, ‘that there are only men and women.’ I nod.
‘But between the two, there are gradations of masculine and feminine that are not so stereotypical. Call it Fifty Shades of Grey’, she says, giggling.
‘But you feel like…a woman?’ I ask.
‘I am a woman, just in the wrong body’, she says. ‘But I’m not attracted to men or women. I’m attracted to something in between.’
She prefers to talk about music. This new and unfamiliar territory for us must be old news to her. She doesn’t hold it against us, though, mostly because we, too, love Deep Purple, Jimi Hendrix and Steve Miller. We agree to sing a song together later that night.
Dolly’s dismal voice
The crowd trickles in and Dolly prepares to take the stage. She starts with a ‘good evening’, but the microphone cuts out.
‘Oh my god, not again. A sound woman who can’t work the equipment.’
‘What?’ calls the woman at the mixing board.
‘And deaf, too! ‘Sweet Jesus!’ cries Dolly.
This is Dolly’s Dazzling Karaoke! And the more I drink, the more annoying I get
The crowd grins, and Dolly blows a kiss to the woman at the mixing board.
‘She doesn’t understand Dutch anyway’, she snipes.
‘Right, ladies and gentleman, this is Dolly’s Dazzling Karaoke! And the more I drink, the more annoying I get. But the more you drink, the more fun it gets! So go on, to the bar!’
The crowd cheers. The music starts.
‘And most of all, sign up to sing a song; that way you won’t have to listen to my dismal voice all night long.’
She starts off the festivities with the first song. Some people drink at the bar, others dance, pens and paper circulate for the karaoke sign up.
Embarrassment on the dance floor
What more can I say? Dolly Wood is an extremely entertaining hostess. Normally, I think karaoke bars are absolutely terrible. Listening to strangers sing off-key.
Here, people joyfully sing along. The vibe reminds me of a family party, when after dinner all of the aunts and uncles shamelessly hit the dance floor. Everyone’s tipsy and having a good time. I also noticed that, due to the lack of clarity about who is attracted to whom and who is what, there isn’t much emphasis on ‘hooking up’. Boys, girls and all 50 shades of grey in between are not that preoccupied with each other. Lisa is dancing, having a great time. I admit there is something irrevocably feminine about her, her way of speaking, her movements. Her clothes. We sing a song.
Dolly Wood introduces everyone, and sings quite well herself, albeit in a comically deep voice for a girl her age. She chases everyone off the stage with a rude remark, often accompanied by raucous laughter. After Lisa finishes singing a song by Jimi Hendrix, Dolly says:
‘So, Lisa, it takes balls to sing that song, and once again you’ve demonstrated that.’ In response to a young man who effortlessly sang Michael Bublé:
‘You are such an amazing singer, sweetie; are you single?’ He nods.
‘I can see why; buh-bye!’
Whether or not you can dance or sing, whether you’re attractive or not, gay, straight or somewhere in between, no one escapes Dolly’s sharp tongue.
That’s how the court jester at De Lola carries on. I’m fascinated by how the friendly guy from earlier this evening has now turned into a catty bitch. Everyone is teased, belittled, ridiculed. Laughs abound. Whether or not you can dance or sing, whether you’re attractive or not, gay, straight or somewhere in between, no one escapes Dolly’s sharp tongue. Everyone is equal to her. When she makes politically incorrect quips, I think to myself: next time we hear something along the lines of ‘it’s always the foreigners’ or ‘God hates gays’ in a serious context, maybe we should just laugh as loudly as we are right now.
Censoring speech does not seem to be the answer. I get a much stronger sense that we should not take intolerant people any more seriously than this boy with his face paint and purple wig singing half-drunk karaoke on stiletto heels.
Photos: Niels Punter